It’s unclear where the first Memorial Day took place. The U.S. ceremony emerged from the Civil War, but as the Department of Veteran’s Affairs explains, “Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.”
Nonetheless, in 1966, “Congress and President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of Memorial Day.” I can only imagine how my Southern brothers and sisters feel about that.
Speaking of which, eleven Southern states recognize “Confederate Memorial Day” – an observation on which the now generalized Memorial Day was based.
One story broadening Memorial Day to honor the Northern dead comes out of Columbus, Missouri. On April 25, 1866: A group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
This early group of mourners made a conscious choice to recognize all the dead. Not just their dead. All the dead.
At that moment of grief and hope and pain, disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, it did not matter who had won and who had lost, it did not matter who was friend and who was foe. All that mattered was that good men had died, and good men deserve to be mourned.
Whether you believe war to be a necessary evil or an evil beyond necessity, the outcome is always tragic. The cost is always high.
Since first Man took his brother’s life, and the sad world began, as Oscar Wilde says.
In 1868 General Logan ordered his posts to decorate graves of fallen soldiers, saying, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
The cost is always high. And we should always mourn.
And, disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, we should mourn all those who fall. We should mourn every brave hero and every life cut short. We should mourn every brutal act and every brutal reaction. We should mourn with the greater angels of our nature that men commit acts so heinous war seems a solution.
We should mourn, we must mourn. But more than mourn, we should do better.